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Haptic suits let you feel music through your skin

Jay Allen Zimmerman, a deaf musician and musicologist, was used to placing himself near the speakers in clubs, and strained to feel the vibrations of songs he could not hear.

So when they were invited to test out a new technology, a backpack, known as a haptic suit, designed to make them experience music as vibrations on their skin – a backpack up to the ankles. Kick drum, a snare drum for the spine – he was excited.

“With captioning and sign language interpretation, your brain is forced to be in more than one place at a time,” Mr. Zimmerman, who began losing his hearing in his early 20s, said in a recent video interview. said in.

“With the haptic system,” he continued, “it can go directly into your body at that exact moment, and there is a real possibility of actually feeling the music in your body.”

The type of haptic suit Mr. Zimmerman first tested now, nearly a decade ago, has only recently become more accessible to the public. The devices were available this summer at events at Lincoln Center in New York City — which recently included a silent disco night, an event where people danced while listening to music through wireless headphones — as well as in Austin Also at the South By Southwest festival, Texas, in March, a Greta Van Fleet concert in Las Vegas and a performance at Opera Philadelphia.

Developed by Philadelphia-based company Music:Not Impossible, the device consists of two ankle bands, two wrist bands and a backpack that fastens with double straps over the rib cage. Wearing one of them feels like getting a full-body bear hug from a massage chair.

haptic suits, which are also used in virtual reality and video games, have been around for decades, But the Music:Not Impossible suits are unique because the devices turn individual notes of music into specific vibrations. Other companies are also producing haptic products designed to capture the sound experiences of various events. Examples include the explosion of a baseball bat at a sporting event. transmitted through vibrating seatsor more everyday experiences such as the sound of a dog barking are translated through patterns of buzzing wearable bracelet,

“There is a revolution underway in haptic technology right now,” said Mark D. Fletcher, a researcher at the University of Southampton in the UK who studies the use of haptics to assist people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

The development of the suit, he said, has benefited from recent advances in microprocessors, wireless technology, batteries and artificial intelligence, which are all key components in the emerging market for wearable haptic devices.

Mick Ebeling, founder of Los Angeles-based Not Impossible Labs, was first inspired to experiment with the haptic suit in 2014 when he saw a video of an event featuring a deaf DJ playing through floor-mounted speakers. Bass-heavy music was playing. People dancing barefoot. Mr. Ebeling wanted to find a better way for deaf people to experience music.

Daniel Belker, a musician who has a master’s degree in theatre, soon came on board to find a way to transmit the experience of music directly to the brain. That mission soon expanded to the goal of creating a tactile music experience that was available to everyone, including those with hearing loss, Mr. Belker said.

Mr. Belker joined the project because of his interest in helping the deaf community, but also because he was interested in being a musician. He had written a master’s thesis on hearing and was already producing sound with vibrating objects in his shows.

Mr. Belker worked with engineers at Avnet, an electronics company, to build a more subtle haptic feedback system for use with musical experiences that captures the sensation of touch via vibration and wireless transmission without time lag. produces. But the first prototypes were bulky and not sensitive enough to really translate the music.

“As a musician, artistic expression is important, not just the technical side,” he said.

He solicited feedback from members of the deaf community, including Mandy Harvey, a deaf singer and songwriter; as well as musician Mr. Zimmerman; and sign language interpreter Amber Galloway.

Mr. Zimmerman said the first version of the device he tested “was not satisfactory.”

“Imagine having seven or eight different cellphones attached to different parts of your body with wires attached to them,” he said. “And then they all start moving randomly.”

Mr. Belker, he said, worked to improve the technology until the 24 instrumental or vocal elements in a song could be translated to a different point on the suite.

By 2018, they had created the first version of the current model, which offers three levels of intensity that can be set individually, as well as a fully customizable fit.

Amanda Landers, a 36-year-old sign language instructor at Long Island’s Syosset High School who has a gradual hearing loss that began during high school, said she thinks the suit is a great way to reach out to those who A revolutionary method for those who are deaf or hard of hearing.

He first wore a vest last year during a private demonstration with Mr. Belker and Flavia Naslausky, head of business development and strategy at Music: Not Impossible, on Not Impossible Labs’ website while researching emerging technologies for people. Came. Hearing loss to show your students.

The company played his excerpts from the film “Interstellar”, whose composer Hans Zimmer was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Score. The biggest surprise, Ms. Landers said, was the intensity of the sensations.

“When the song was slowing down, not only were your various organs vibrating; It’s gotten really softer and more intense,” she said in a recent video interview. “And when it was hot, my whole body was shaking. The precision with which he used it was astonishing.”

The technology, which has been tested up to three-quarters of a mile from a stage, works for both throbbing bass tracks and classical pieces (it was mostly dance-pop and electronic music in the mix at a silent disco) at Lincoln Center. most recently Saturday night).

“What they’re doing is so important,” Ms. Landers said of Music: Not Impossible’s vision of creating a shared music experience for all concert-goers. “People often look at inclusivity as something like, ‘Oh, it’s so complicated,’ and then they don’t do it, but it’s not that hard.”

Music: Not Impossible currently offers Suites to organizations as part of a full-package deal, which includes up to 90 Suites; a team of on-site staff members to help people connect with them, answer questions, and troubleshoot technology issues; Also a team of “Vibro DJs” were trained to optimize the vibration transmission locations for each song in a set.

Prices start at a few thousand dollars for a “basic experience,” which includes a few suites and a vibro DJ, and can reach six figures for experiences that take place in one of the company’s 90-suite inventory, Mr. Belker said. absorb a significant portion. United States.

(Lincoln Center, which has provided suites for certain events each summer through 2021, had 75 suites at two Silent Disco Nights and one Mostly Mozart Festival orchestra concerts this summer, up from 50 per event last year.)

“Our only requirement on that front is that the deaf and hard of hearing never be charged for our experience,” Mr. Belker said.

But its out of reach for most consumers is one reason why haptic suits, while promising, are currently an impractical option for most individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Dickie Harts, a 25-year-old New York actor and performer who was deaf since birth and finds himself a regular at city clubs, got a chance to try out an earlier version of the musical: Not Impossible Suite at a concert in Los Angeles. Angels about eight years ago. (The term Deaf is used by some to refer to a specific cultural identity.)

Although he appreciates the intention behind them, he said, he prefers live interpretation of American Sign Language, along with captions expressing the song’s lyrics.

“Feeling the tremor has never been an issue for me,” he said in a recent video call conducted with the assistance of an ASL interpreter. “I want to know what these words are. I don’t want to go over to my listening friend and say, ‘Oh, what song are they playing?'”

Another concern, he said, is that mobs could make deaf people targets of hooliganism. At a program in Los Angeles where he tested them, he said only deaf people were using them, which made him feel isolated.

But, he added, if the people listening in the audience were also wearing suits like on Lincoln Center’s silent disco nights, they would be interested in being a part of it.

Mr. Belker said that Music: Not Impossible hopes to create a product that everyone can use.

That vision was realized at the Lincoln Center Silent Disco. As dusk fell, around 75 people wearing red, green or blue glowing headphones got a chance to experience the suit. Sometimes alone, sometimes in groups, they bounce and dance to the pulsating dance-pop track, creating their own circle of rhythm.

“It’s like raindrops on my shoulders,” said Regina Valdez, 55, who lives in Harlem.

“Wow, it’s vibrating,” said 6-year-old Lucas Garcia, surprised as he looked down at his vest. His parents, Chris Garcia and Aida Alvarez, who were also wearing vests, danced nearby.

As designed – it was impossible to tell who was deaf and who was hearing.

But Mr. Zimmerman, who first tested the suit, said he still expected some more changes.

He said, “I would like it to be so good that a beautiful note on the violin would make me cry.” “And a funny blast of trombone will make me laugh.”

katie van sickle Contributed reporting.

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